Edinburgh is situated on the south shore of the Firth of Forth, that intrusion of the ocean into the side of Scotland. This means that you are never far from the shore in Edinburgh, even though the historical center is a few miles inland. You can see the ocean from all the high points, like from the Castle, and if you are interested in Edinburgh oceanic history, one of the places to visit is Leith Shore. For centuries much of Scotland shipping came through Leith Port, in the area now called Leith Shore. The Shore is where the harbour was until the late 19th century when more docks were built to the east and north.
Visiting the Shore now you would never guess how busy it must have been a few centuries ago, with ships coming and going, constantly being loaded or offloaded. Edinburgh exported coal, grain, spirits, fish and hides and bringing back spices, cloth, tea, coffee and wine. The painting below gives some idea of what it looked like in mid 19th century.
These days there is much less shipping in Edinburgh as the current ports north of the Shore are unfortunately not equipped to handle the massive container ships. Should I ever again be lucky enough to travel on one those ships, it would be fantastic to board them in my home town. Alas, it will not be.
The Leith docks were the main port for Edinburgh for hundreds of years, with two famous royals docking there on their arrival to Edinburgh. Mary Queen of Scots landed there in 1561, after both her husband, the King of France, and her mother, Mary of Guise who acted as Mary’s regent in Scotland, had died. A few hundred years later, Leith saw George IV arrive in Edinburgh in spectacular fashion, bringing kilts and tartans back into fashion. Sadly, little of what remains in Leith port today date from even the late 18th or early 19th Century, with most being Victorian or later.
The circular tower in the Leith docks panting above was erected in the 1680s as a mill and is one of the oldest buildings still standing not just at the docks but in Leith. The tower was modified during the Napoleonic wars with the crenellations still in place today, which were implemented when the purpose of the tower was changed to be used for signaling ships what the water depth was at the harbor. The tower unfortunately cannot be entered today. There are also a few buildings on Bernard Street that date to early 18th Century and used to be part of a complex called King’s Wark that itself dates to the 15th Century. The rest of the buildings along the Shore are mostly Victorian (or newer), including a Victorian era swing bridge, which used to have the railway run over it. Today not even pedestrians can cross it along the center, but along a narrow passage on one side of the bridge (see photo in the slide show above).
A lot of manufacturing took place in Leith in the 18th and 19th centuries, including glassworks (seen on the right hand side of the map on the right) and ship building, which supported the export business, but the area went into decline after World War II. It has only recently been recreated as a residential area with pubs and restaurants mainly along the Shore and a restaurant area on the north side of Commercial street, which used to be the site of the wet docks that were created in the 19th century and filled in in 1970s. And of course in 1998 the Royal Yacht Britannia found her permanent home at the Ocean Terminal nearby, both of which draw people to the area.
The northern part of the docks were built from mid 19th Century onward, and the historical port area ends with the signal tower I mention above. If you compare the map on the right to a modern day map, you will notice that the docks area was greatly expanded northward (in the Victorian era). On the east side of the harbor, Leith ended in what is now Tower Street, and on the west side in what is now Commercial Street. The victorians built vast wet docks just beyond the Citadel on the left, which were filled in in the 20th century and actually today form the restaurant area I mention above.
Leith generally is a fascinating area with a lot of historical buildings, which I haven’t fully explored yet. Writing a blog post about any area in Edinburgh inevitably means a long meander into the history of it. At least it does for me as I find history fascinating. And in Edinburgh history seems closer than elsewhere, and you can easily imagine people of Olden Days walking along the same streets as you are walking, or bustling along the old harbor in Leith.
You find more about Edinburgh’s Maritime History in an earlier blog post.
The painting of Leith docks is from National Galleries Scotland here.
The Leith map is from 1786 (source).